Category Archives: Other Robots

The Orbotix Sphero – Very Cool Robot Waiting for Your Killer App

This robot doesn’t clean carpets, and as the title would imply, the theme here is definitely going to be intriguing potential. The Orbotix Sphero is one third high-tech toy, one third smart phone or tablet accessory, and one third blank slate waiting for you to find cool things to do with it. Software is available on both the iOS and Android platforms. My Sphero from Orbotix came in today. I’m one of the lucky few who pre-ordered and got one before Christmas. As you know, here at Robot Vacuum Cleaner dot Org, we are serious about robots that run around floors.

Orbotix Sphero Boxes

Packaging and Contents

Mine came in a shipping box like so. I am compelled to comment that the inner packaging is pretty much impossible to open in a way that makes any sense.

Sphero - what comes in the box

Here is what comes in the box (with an iPhone included in the picture to give a sense of scale). I had thought from photos of the device that the Sphero would be smaller. I’m guessing that it’s a little smaller than a baseball. You have the Sphero itself, the charging stand, the charger power supply, a “Product Information Guide” and a Quick-Start Guide. The Product Information Guide is mostly warnings and admonitions. Everything from a warning about flashing lights causing seizures to exploding lithium polymer batteries; from keeping a safe distance from the ball to warranty terms. This is exactly the kind of stuff that makes me proceed gratefully to the Quick Start Guide.

The Quick Start Guide is a long fold-out cleverly printed with a different platform on each side. One side gets you started with the Apple iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. The other side is dedicated to Android devices. The basics are, as one would expect: Charge the ball, turn it on, pair via Bluetooth it with your smart phone or tablet, download the software, PLAY! Each set of platform instructions is punctuated with charging information.

The robot and charging base tell you about their status with lights. A solid light on the base means that the Sphero is charged. When you take the Sphero off the base, it is asleep and you shake it to “wake it up”. Upon waking, the ball lights up. Depending on what the lights are doing, it may indicate that the Bluetooth isn’t currently paired, or it may indicate that the robot is ready to get a move on. The robot flashes red when it needs a charge, and cycles through a rainbow when it is placed on the charging base. It charges in three hours and you get about an hour of play out of a charge.

The Hardware

The Sphero is loaded with technology:

  • RGB LED system
  • compass
  • gyroscope
  • accelerometer
  • induction charger
  • Bluetooth wireless
  • motor drive

I think that this is a great idea. The reason being: The more technology they can pack into this device, the more likely it is that people and developers are going to find exciting things to do with it. Think about how much more useful and suitable for games a smartphone is with an accelerometer.

The Apps

Currently there are five apps for the Sphero. There is the main Sphero app, which is described as being your main activity hub for the Sphero. It is also the app which provides any firmware updates for the robot. There is Sphero Drive, Sphero Cam, Sphero Draw, and Sphero Golf. All of these titles are self-explanatory with the exception of the Cam. The name “Sphero Cam” might make you think that there’s a camera in the ball. Instead, the program supplies a way to use the camera on your smartphone or tablet and drive your Sphero around at the same time. In Sphero Draw, you draw lines and the robot does its best to follow them.

Something you need to do before (and sometimes during) use is to calibrate the Sphero. The robot inside the ball has a definite front and back (or, as the calibration software puts it, the Sphero has a “tail”). When you calibrate the unit, you’re making it so that you and the robot are agreeing on what direction is what. If you get out of calibration with the device by doing something like turning yourself around, for example, things can get a little confusing. The nice thing is that you can calibrate the device from almost anywhere in the provided apps. All you have to do is place two fingers on the screen and rotate. A blue light shows up on the equator of the Spero, and you twist your fingers until the light it pointing at you. Then you let go and get back to the fun.

The Sphero Drive app makes the user calibrate every time it starts, which is simultaneously a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because it cuts down on confusion. It’s bad because they make you “test” that you got it right by moving the robot a couple of feet away from you: Every. Single. Time. Hopefully in the future there will be a way to skip the test part of this initial calibration.

The settings area in the apps lets you choose between three self-descriptive speed settings: Cautious, Comfort, and Crazy. Also available are a sound effects volume slider and a way to adjust the color that the ball lights display. I have to admit that I’m a little confused about the sound effects slider. It doesn’t really seem to do anything right now. I’ll update this section if/when I have more information about this setting.

The apps can all be configured to report your activities to an online “Sphero World”, which keeps a record of what you and your Sphero have been up to, and unlocks “achievements” for doing things like changing the color of the lights 500 times, or driving the ball “around the world” once or twice. These items will sound underwhelming to most, but I think that this is another area of obvious future potential.

Operating the Sphero

Sphero Drive is fun. As the name indicates, it is a simple driving app. You are given three ways to drive: Joystick, Tilt, and RC. Joystick basically makes the Sphero drive in the direction you tell it to go with an onscreen virtual joystick. Tilt does pretty much what joystick does but you control it by tilting your smartphone or tablet. RC drives the device like a radio control set would. You steer the Sphero with a steering slider while manipulating a speed slider to make it go. This lets you drive the Sphero more like a radio controlled car with a definite back, front, right, and left. When driving, there are Boost buttons available, and these compel the robot to give an extra burst of speed. Once the ball builds up some steam, you can use a ramp to make it jump.

Remember how I mentioned that the Sphero has a front and a tail? One thing that takes a little getting used to is that the Sphero has to literally turn around in order to move in another direction. It’s a little hard to explain, but I WAS thinking that the ball would be omnidirectional, which is to say that I expected that you could make it move in one direction and then make it reverse or change direction on a dime. Not so. To reverse directions, the Sphero has to make a U turn, because it has a tail. This is easy to see in the above video.

The Fish Tail

Strangely enough, the device does have a shadow projected by the lights that looks exactly like a fish tail, and the fish tail is oriented to point backwards. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it does provide a frame of reference when you’re driving the thing around.

So What’s the Big Deal?

I know that I’m not alone in thinking that this is a very intriguing piece of technology. Make no mistake: It’s just a matter of time before a cute or funny YouTube video of a cat, rabbit, or frog interacting with a Sphero goes viral. It’s inevitable, and if I had a cat, this is what I would be working on first thing tomorrow. Likewise if I was 13, I would probably spend hours with a Sphero, cat or no cat. As an adult, however, I think that the Sphero is a very cool robot waiting for someone to come up with an addictive piece of software or a ridiculously fun thing to do with it. The folks at Orbotix have carefully crafted a most intriguing technological blank slate. The potential is definitely there. I can’t wait to see what people come up with.

The Dirt Devil RoomMate Robot Vacuum Does the Job

Dirt Devil RoomMate Robotic Vacuum Cleaner Reviewd

What we have here is a hard floor cleaning robotic vacuum cleaner that is something of a Roomba look-alike. It’s a vacuum with dual side-brushes, and like a Roomba it does a random behavioral kind of cleaning (as opposed to mapping out a room like the Neato XV-11 and Mint Cleaners do). Here’s one that appeared in 2011 without a bang: The Dirt Devil RoomMate Robotic Vacuum Cleaner by Royal Appliance Mfg Co. The best I can figure out, this item was introduced in April or May of this year, with little or no fanfare. There aren’t any reviews on the Amazon product page yet, even. So I’m pretty sure that this is the first review for this item.

What comes in the box.

The robot comes with everything you need to get started in the box: The robot itself, 2 detachable side bristle brushes, a manual, a quick-start guide, the battery, and battery charger. . The battery is a 14.4 Volt, 800mAh NiMH unit that looks like it’s made of 12 AA cells wrapped up into a single module. The quick-start guide gets you through attaching the side brushes, inserting the battery, and operating the robot for the first time. The manual is one of those frustrating affairs because it is written in three languages and they’re all crammed together. So each page has every step and illustration detailed in English, Spanish, and French together. I don’t know why it is, but I always find myself trying to read the French sections.

Dirt Devil on/off switch and charging port

The robot takes four hours to charge. A charge lasts over an hour with a new battery. The manufacturer says that the robot should last 50 minutes. Ours lasted about one hour, ten minutes for our testing. On the top of the robot there are three LED lights. They are: “Battery Low” indicator, “Dirt Cup Full” or “Clog” indicator, and “Charging” indicator. To be honest, the outside two lights flash while the robot is cleaning, so I haven’t really been able to figure out what they mean.

Here is the robot in action:

As you can see, it does random criss-crossing of the room, followed by circling/spiraling and then it does wall following. It actually does those things in that order. It follows walls in one direction only, going clockwise around a room perimeter when viewed from above. Also like the Roomba, Mint Cleaner, and XV-11, the Dirt Devil has a bumper in front to tell when it has run into something. The Dirt Devil also seems to use that bumper to do its edge following. Like other floor cleaning robots, the Dirt Devil has cliff sensors to keep it from going off an edge.

Comparing a Dirt Devil RoomMate to an iRobot Roomba

Despite its appearances, the Dirt Devil is different from a Roomba in quite a few ways. For one thing, it lacks a lot of the advanced features built into Roombas these days. There’s no Dirt Detect, no dock, no Lighthouses, no scheduling, no remote control, and etc. As you can see, the robot is smaller than a Roomba, and shorter. You put the robot in a room, switch it on, and the robot is done when the battery runs out. When it’s done it gives a distintive chirping noise. Since the robot vacuums until the battery is gone, you need to charge it again before you can do another room.

Bottom of the Dirt Devil robot

Looking at the bottom of the robot reveals even more differences from a Roomba. The Dirt Devil has two side brushes instead of one. Unlike a Roomba or XV-11, there are no beaters or intake brushes. Instead, the side brushes direct dirt and debris into a mouth-like intake where the vacuum sucks it into the filter cup. So on the plus side, it won’t inhale power cords. During testing, however, the robot had some trouble with the intake getting clogged by large dust bunnies. When I looked at the dust bin, I noticed that there’s a cellophane lid that is made to keep debris from falling back out of the bin. I bet if a person pulled that out, it might not have such a hard time with the dust bunnies.

The robot moves more slowly than any other robot vacuum we’ve reviewed here, and as a result it’s more gentle when it runs into furniture, doors, and walls. It’s more noisy than the Mint, but definitely more quiet than a Roomba. During testing the robot didn’t have any problems moving around rooms, but it did have some trouble with floor mats and area rugs. In particular, depending on its angle of approach, the robot sometimes got stuck trying to climb up area rugs and floor mats. Like every other robot floor cleaner in the world, when left unattended, this robot may get stuck in unexpected places and can get tangled in cords.

Dirt Devil robot debris cup and filter

The filter cup is easy to get to and very easy to empty. One nice thing is that the cup and filter can be cleaned with water, although obviously they need to be dried properly before putting them back in the robot.

So how does it do? As the title states, it does the job. I was able to use it to clean several rooms, and was satisfied with the results. I did my standard test where I ran other robots after the Dirt Devil cleaned a room to see how it did, and in all cases it didn’t leave much for the other robots to clean up on hard floors. Although it is a vacuum cleaner, it’s not designed to clean carpets. I’m guessing that this is because the robot lacks beaters and intake brushes to pull dust and dirt out of carpets. One thing we were impressed by was its ability to suck up larger debris like pine needles from our Christmas decorations.


More sensitive bumper than most other robots.
Won’t eat cables and cords (although it can still get stuck on them).
Less room prep work needed.
Less expensive.
Cleans hard floors well.
The dual brushes get into corners for good cleaning.
Runs more quietly than other robot vacuums (manufacturer claims less than 60 dB).


Can’t be scheduled.
Gets stuck climbing area rugs and mats.
Intake can get choked with dust bunnies.

Executive Summary

The Dirt Devil robotic vacuum is ideal for vacuuming kitchen and bathroom floors, and is available at almost half the price of its closest competitor. In our testing, the robot seemed reliable, and I appreciated how it was more forgiving than other vacuums as far as how much room prep is required. Our one concern with the robot is that the intake can get clogged easily. If you’re looking for a no-frills budget floor cleaning robot that does the job, the Dirt Devil RoomMate might be the robot for you.

Check out information and pricing for the Dirt Devil RoomMate on

Orbotix Sphero Shipments Delayed

We’ve covered the Orbotix Sphero here once or twice, and frankly, I’m really excited to get my hands on one of these devices. Unfortunately, the company has announced that they’ll be shipping them later than expected.

Later note: I got mine in and have posted a review of the Sphero, here.

In an email to the world, the CEO has apologized and blamed production delays and also an underestimation of demand. In addition, I got the email above just today, which makes it look like the Spheros (or is it Spheroes?) may end up being pretty scarce this holiday season. That’s too bad. We wish Orbotix well and are still looking forward to seeing this item. Hopefully sooner than later. Hint! Hint!

Update: It turns out that not everyone who pre-ordered a Sphero got the same email as I did. A reader got an email saying that he wouldn’t be getting a Spero by Christmas, and he was offered a free t-shirt to make amends. I have to say that I registered to pre-order mine the same day that they announced availability, and then pre-ordered mine the same day they became available as well, so it could be that the cut-off is pretty short.